Drexel ECE: History
The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Drexel University traces its beginnings to series of programs in Applied Electricity that were developed at Drexel Institute of Art Science and Industry (established 1891) between 1893 and 18991. The first Professor of Applied Electricity at Drexel was Arthur J. Rowland, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University who joined the Institute in summer 1893, and started the new Applied Electricity program in the basement of a building at 28 South 32nd Street. By the time Rowland left Drexel in 1918, the Institute had a growing Department of Electrical Engineering (introduced in 1900) and, for a while, even a separate School of Electrical Engineering (1903-1906). Courses were focused on machinery and power, with strong elements of mechanics and machine design (including mandatory classes in drafting and machine shop work). Students could choose between 2-year, 3-year and 4-year programs based on their background and objectives, and admission criteria were flexible. The basic value proposition of the department (and the school) was: affordable and socially relevant education, with high quality and strong practical flavor, leading to successful placement of graduates in the job market and to rewarding careers in engineering. It should not be surprising then that it took Drexel 17 years (from 1893 to 1914) to start granting formal Bachelor degrees in Engineering. For almost two decades the focus was on practical preparation for the job market, not on the "formalities" of degrees.
In 1919 Drexel adopted cooperative education and organized the academic year in quarters. The Electrical Engineering Department has been joined by Robert C. Disque of the University of Wisconsin, who would be involved in its leadership and development until the 1950s (he was in charge for 34 years, including a few years as Interim President). The student branch of the American Institute of Electrical Engineering (later IEEE) was organized here in 1921. In 1925 the five-year curriculum (including 6 quarters of co-operative education) was established. In 1927 the Drexel Engineering School was accredited for the first time by a national accrediting agency.
Following a decade of expansion, Drexel Institute of Technology (this new name was adopted in 1936) had undergone significant transformation during the years of World War 2 (1939-1945). Drexel had increased its involvement in national defense, and in the training of skilled technologists for the US armed forces. During the war, women enrollment became substantial (17 women in the College of Engineering in 1943, leading to formal acceptance of women into the College in 1945). In the years following the war, research and graduate studies were slowly introduced into programs that were previously focused on training and teaching2. In 1955, the beginnings of Biomedical Engineering at Drexel were made, through a program in Biomedical Instrumentation. The study of computers and computer languages was initiated shortly thereafter. In 1965 Drexel conferred its first PhD degrees. The Electrical Engineering curriculum expanded well beyond power engineering and machinery, to include instrumentation, electronics, computers, control and communications. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw introduction of formal studies in new areas such as robotics, signal processing, and radar. These trends were accelerated in the 1980s when the department was renamed Electrical and Computer Engineering, and when Drexel University (the name was changed from Drexel Institute of Technology in 1970) became the first major academic institution to require all incoming student to use a personal computer. The ECE Department entered new research areas in biomedical diagnostics (especially ultrasonics) and developed new facilities and large scale projects in image processing and intelligent control.
Today the ECE Department is the vibrant home of close to 900 students and 60 faculty and staff members. They are engaged in the study and implementation of systems, methods and algorithms in areas ranging from clean energy to bio-photonics, and from wireless communications to entertainment technology. While the scope, areas of interest and facilities of the ECE Department do not resemble what could be found in the humble basement where we originated more than a century ago, we continue to carry the same basic value proposition that motivated Arthur J. Rowland in 1893: affordable and socially relevant education, with high quality and strong practical flavor, leading to successful placement of graduates in the job market and to rewarding careers in engineering.
1Edward D. McDonald and Edward M. Hinton: Drexel Institute of Technology 1891-1941, Philadelphia: Drexel Institute of Technology, 1942
2 M. Kotzin, A History of Drexel University, 1941-1963, Philadelphia: Drexel University, 1983